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Language acquisition: A dance between the child and its environment

Research spotlight interview

Resource Details

  • Prepared by

    Dr. Mirjana Sekicki

  • Read time

    5 min

  • July 3, 2023

Prof. Dr. Nivedita Mani sheds light on the complex mechanisms behind language acquisition and how eye tracking empowers research in her baby lab.  

Tobii - Research spotlight - Nivedita Mani

Prof. Nivedita Mani’s lab examines the factors underlying language learning in children as young as 6 months of age. In her work, word learning is viewed as the result of a dynamic mutual interaction between the environment and the learner, with a particular focus on the learner, what they know, what they are interested in, and their motivation to learn.

Watch the video interview.

About the interview

In a congenial conversation with Professor Mani, we discussed the mechanisms that support our processing and acquisition of language. Delving into the fascinating realm of language acquisition and its connection with our environment, comparing it to a “dance”, she unravels the dynamic interplay between children and their surroundings.

“We describe language acquisition as the result of a dynamic mutual interaction between the child and the environment. And our overarching goal is to identify what the dynamics are in this interaction. How do child and the environment go through this dance, that we believe they have to, as the child learns language? At what point does the environment come in, and how does the child come in and shape the environment, and how do they mutually shape one another?”

Prof. Mani recalled how her baby lab “Wortschatzinsel” was established and later served as a model for several other labs. She notes how creative one must be in coming up with different paradigms when working with children under 1 year of age. Emphasizing the pivotal role of eye tracking technology in her work, she describes it as her “bread-and-butter paradigm”, since it provides us with a reliable estimate of how children process language and what words they learn to associate with which objects in their environment.

We discussed in detail a large body of work in which Prof. Mani employed eye tracking technology by reflecting on the four main hypotheses addressed in that work. They encompass the influence of auditory input on attention, the impact of existing knowledge on language learning, the role of a child´s interests in shaping their learning, and the determination of whom, when, and how a child chooses to learn from.

Moreover, we reflected on the intriguing context of language acquisition in multilingual environments, where current research indicates that there are no sharp boundaries across languages, especially in early development, and that the knowledge acquired in one language can influence the processing of the other language.

Finally, Professor Mani noted how excited she is about recent developments that allow us to consider moving beyond the confined lab environments, where most developmental research in the past decades has been based, and stepping out into the real world, where eye tracking can facilitate the study of natural interactions with the visual environment, caregivers, and peers. By capturing the vibrant unfiltered environments that children typically encounter, eye tracking holds the potential to enable new breakthroughs in our understanding of language acquisition.

“More recently, I feel like the direction we should be going is away from my very sterile gray labs and moving more to the environment that children are actually confronted with when they learn language and trying to get those messy environments and seeing to what extent your eye trackers will allow us to capture where babies are looking (…) in all the glorious mess that young children are usually confronted with.”

Watch the video below to unravel the intricacies of language acquisition, understand the role of eye tracking in its study, and gain valuable insights from Prof. Mani herself.

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Related information

Below you can find a selection of publications reporting on the work mentioned in the interview, which employed eye tracking technology:

Ackermann L., Hepach R. & Mani N. (2020). Children learn words easier when they are interested in the category to which the word belongs. Developmental science 23(3), e12915.

Outters, V., Schreiner M. S., Behne T. & Mani N. (2020). Maternal input and infants’ response to infant‐directed speech. Infancy 25(4), 478-499.

Schütte F., Mani, N. & Behne T. (2020). Retrospective inferences in selective trust. Royal Society Open Science 7(2), 191451.

Mani, N. & Ackermann L. (2018). Why do children learn the words they do?. Child Development Perspectives 12(4). 253-257.

Schreiner, M. S. & Mani, N. (2017). Listen up! Developmental differences in the impact of IDS on speech segmentation. Cognition 160. 98-102.

For more on Prof. Dr. Mani´s work, please visit her lab´s website and Google Scholar profile.

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In this series of interviews, esteemed researchers discuss how they have used eye tracking across a broad range of applications.

Resource Details

  • Prepared by

    Dr. Mirjana Sekicki

  • Read time

    5 min

  • July 3, 2023

Interviewed by

  • Tobii Pro - Dr. Mirjana Sekicki - Scientific Research Account Manager

    Dr. Mirjana Sekicki

    Eye tracking research advocate, Tobii

    I work closely with scientific researchers who use eye tracking in their work. My mission is to create an ever stronger bond between the worlds of science and technology, for the advancement of our collective knowledge and wellbeing.

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